There would be no snow. Kate knew it, but it didn't stop her eyes from searching a black sky that glittered with stars. The moon that shone on her upturned face was the same one that illuminated her nights in Rushville. But here it made dark silhouettes of the palm branches above perpetually bent trunks. Few trees in Lake Worth appeared to be straight. The palms on the coast all leaned in unison like broken soldiers. Hurricane was a distant word in Ohio, appearing in weather broadcasts on bright television screens, triggering memories of an uncle who always spent Christmas on her family's farm. His head shake was always the same, accompanied by a short bark of laughter. "Always meant to hitch down south," he said. "And see one of them hurry-canes." He chuckled at the television. "Glad I never made it. That Florida could blow into the ocean any day now."
Kate would look at her uncle in 9-year-old wonder and picture a land of graceful palms sinking into boiling waves.
There had been snow in her childhood, in those wondering years when everything was new and fresh and untried. Her mother's soft voice would coax them away from icy and magnificent snow forts, and snow angels, to a meal of roast turkey and sweet syrupy ham.
Kate bumped her nose against the glass. She was not in Rushville, Ohio; she was in Lake Worth, Florida, with its hurricane-bent palm trees, and not even one familiar old hickory stood outside her window. Nothing that belonged to Christmas could find a place here. And there would be no snow.
She walked to the corner of the room and lifted the cloth that covered a smooth block of damp clay. When Kate was with child, the woman figures she sculpted were big-bellied, heads thrown back and shouting at the sky. But now her ladies had big breasts and bent backs, their heads pulled down by clutching hands.
In the early morning, when the gray and yellow mix of light touched the window, she would lean over the form in total concentration, the golden ends of her hair long enough to be muddied by the clay.
Kate covered the block again. Her work could not consume the constant ache of displacement. She did not belong in this land with its heavy, humid air.
Brad stirred on the bed behind her, sighed in his sleep and turned to bury his head in her pillow.
She heard another sound, softer but more insistent than the sounds of her husband sleeping. Kate reached into darkness, finding the baby's cradle and gently hunting the tiny warm head above the quilt. She moved her fingers over soft dark fuzz, stroking over tiny ears, soothing the whimpering by her index finger slipped into a warm, miniature fist.
Kate picked her up then, wanting the baby's warmth, the gentle squirming against her chest. Sarah's warmth, her smell, redolent of soured milk and powder, and a hint of cologne, the scent rubbed onto the silky head as she rocked against Kate's breast.
The night paused in its rush toward dawn, and even the bedroom clock failed to register the passing minutes. Kate held Sarah's satiny cheek against hers and smelled the honey sweetness of her breath. She swayed in the comforting rhythm that only mothers can perfect, and mother and daughter were one again; Kate was full and complete with child.
Brad came up behind her, rubbing his eyes. He took the baby carefully, his eyes widening along with Sarah's as he held her over his head, grinning at her sleepy smile. Her skin too soft to resist, he tucked her head beneath his chin.
"Oh, sweetie," he whispered. "You smell like your mama."
He held the baby close to his bare chest and laughed when her questing mouth touched his skin.
"Here. She's looking for something I ain't got."
His eyes were dark, but when he looked at Kate's face his mouth was still, the curve of laughter dying. Kate watched him, her hands automatically up to take the baby. She wanted to become a giant earth mother, or an Amazon type, so that she could take him, hold him to her breast, suckle and nurture what they had lost.
She knew that her feelings were clear in her expression and that his face would change from puzzled sympathy to stern implacability. Brad was West Virginia strong and took every one of life's commitments as serious responsibilities. He worked hard, played hard, and loved with an intensity that stole the breath from her throat. But a thread had pulled free in the fabric of their marriage, and that dangling thread made it impossible for him to help her.
Kate saw her husband turn away, shake his head and mutter under his breath. His thin shoulders hunched before he slid back under the quilt. He had promised his boss a three-year stay in Lake Worth. The time stretched obscenely in Kate's mind. She felt a jerk of pain, deep inside her chest, as real as Sarah's kicks had been when she'd nestled inside Kate.
An incessant Florida sun shone on her breakfast table. Kate set a glass of orange juice in front of her husband. He looked up at her. "It's no use, Katie."
"What's no use?"
"You. Fightin' this place like a fox trapped in a hole." He tipped back in his chair, his gray eyes large in his tanned face.
She lifted her chin. "I'm not fighting anything. I'm here, aren't I? Making your breakfast, doing dishes. I was up at 5 to feed Sarah." She knew she was listing accomplishments, proving that she could function with the ache that filled her throat.
"Honey, you're just homesick. It'll pass."
"Maybe I don't want it to! Thinking of home keeps me...sane."
Color gathered in his cheeks and moved across his face. "This is home now. You wanted me to take this job, Kate. I didn't want to leave Rushville, and you know it. 'Take it,' you said." He parodied her voice, making it high and harsh so that it grated on her ears. "'Don't be a fool, Brad,' you said. 'Everyone wants to live in Florida--it's more money, we won't have to struggle.' And now you're actin' like I dragged you here by the toes."
"Don't!" she screamed. "So I made a mistake! I hate it here--I hate everything!" Her words bounced on the white walls of the breakfast room.
Brad heaved himself up from the table, upsetting it. He glared at her as she watched the puddle of orange juice race in streams to the edge of the table. "So leave! Go on back to your mama! That baby ain't gonna miss a daddy she never sees. Christmas is a big bust anyway. It's Christmas Eve, but you wouldn't know it to look at this place." He gestured to the bare walls. "You don't bake, you don't decorate or make presents, you just get that gray mud all over and sculpt naked ladies that no one wants to buy." His eyes were dark with rage. "Are you so miserable that you can't make Christmas for Sarah?"
Her face burned. "You make Christmas! You're so wonderful at telling people what they should do--you take over and make Christmas!"
"I could do it a heap better than you're doin' it!"
"Good!" Kate swept out of the room, throwing the spatula she held into the sink. Let him try to celebrate Christmas in this place. She wanted no part of it. Sarah was too little to care anyway. And nothing less than Christmas in Ohio could satisfy Kate.
The baby was still asleep. Kate hunched past the cradle. If Sarah woke and saw her, the morning would have to continue, and Kate didn't feel up to it yet. She crawled under cool sheets and twisted them tightly around her. She let her head sink into a pillow.
Kate awoke an hour later, listening to Sarah suck her thumb. A fragrance drifted in from the kitchen. Kate sniffed appreciatively. Cookies. She sat up. If she kept her eyes closed she could almost imagine being in her mother's kitchen, waiting to lick sticky sweet dough from the stirring spoon. Sarah's sharp wail sliced through her thoughts. Kate reached over and gathered up the warm bundle of baby and bedclothes. She held Sarah against her heart, and the baby found her lunch as Kate lay back, soothed by the gentle tugging of Sarah's mouth.
So Brad was making Christmas. Kate burrowed under the sheet, brushing her lips against Sarah's fuzzy head. So let him. She would close her eyes and pretend that she felt the icy shock of snowflakes on her skin.
Kate stood with her hands on her hips, surveying the damage in her kitchen. It was just like Brad to make a huge mess and expect her to clean it up. A batch of burned cookies on a black cookie sheet graced the top of the stove. Flour and sugar grated like sand under her heels, and two bowls stood in the sink, dough hardening rapidly along their stainless sides. Where was he anyway? Then she saw something that couldn't be real. She put down the washcloth and stared.
A short, crooked pine tree stretched brown and green branches along the living room wall. An assortment of Sarah's plastic rattles and wooden blocks were tied along each branch; even her tiny baby shoes were painstakingly hung by their laces. Baby spoons, including the utilitarian rubber-tipped ones, were tied with bright ribbons and spaced next to a silver christening cup. An Ernie puppet from Sesame Street made a hugely grinning angel at the top, while clips that could barely clasp Sarah's downy wisps of hair held clumps of pine needles together. Kate sat down hugging the dish towel when she found Sarah's hospital bracelet and nursery cap clinging to the soft needles.
Stockings were hung on the back door. Three of Brad's red and gray wool hunting socks were suspended by long nails. Black ink marked one as "Dad," the second as "Mom," and the third as "Number One Baby." She was still looking at the door when it opened and Brad walked in.
He carried wrapped presents, placing them carefully beneath the tree. He looked at her sheepishly. "Not much like a tree, huh?"
She shook her head, at a loss for words.
He shrugged. "Well, can't say I didn't try. Here--you better open yours now." He held out a slim, wallet-shaped package.
"No...I can wait...I'll...open mine with Sarah. I'm sorry, I didn't buy anything for you." She twisted the towel in her hands.
He grinned. "Christmas is mostly for kids anyway."
Kate looked at the tree, then back at her husband. "The tree is incredible, really. I like it."
He looked relieved. "Well--open your present now, girl--it's like a dish of cream. It'll spoil if you leave it too long."
Kate tore the foil wrapping. An airline ticket nestled inside its envelope. Its destination was marked Port Columbus. She looked at Brad. He smiled at her shocked expression.
"They expect snow in Rushville tomorrow," he said.
Kate flew into Brad's arms, hugging him fiercely. He held her head tightly to his chest, and she felt the hard thump of his heart. "Just don't forget to come back," he whispered.
She lifted her head. "You're not coming?"
"Honey, I can't be gone that long. And there's no money for two tickets. Sarah rides free." He smiled at her. "Make sure Sarah tastes some gen-u-ine Midwest snow."
Palm Beach International was a bustling hive of humanity. Kate clutched Sarah to her chest and followed closely behind Brad as he maneuvered his way through the crowd. He checked departure times and took care of Kate's luggage. Kate found a chair and sat on the edge of it.
"You're all set, honey. The plane boards in 10 minutes."
"Thanks." She smoothed Sarah's blankets. "I hope she doesn't fuss too much."
Their conversation lagged, and the silence was suddenly unbearable to Kate. "What...what will you do when we're gone?"
"Well, take down the tree, I guess. It's a sorry excuse for a Christmas tree anyway."
She moistened her dry lips, picturing Brad taking Sarah's toys off the little crooked tree.
A loudspeaker announced her flight. Brad turned to her. "Guess this is it." He kissed Kate hard on the lips. Then he pulled back Sarah's blankets and nuzzled her soft skin. "Take care of Mama," he whispered. He smoothed the cover under her chin and adjusted her ruffled bonnet.
Kate's eyes were brimming, and a sharp pain began in her temple. She'd fallen from her father's painting ladder when she was 12 years old. From the 10th rung. She'd counted them later, wanting to know. The feeling was the same, the breath squeezed from her chest, her head dizzy, too light and too hot. She held onto Brad's arm as he led the way to the gate.
"Hey, Katie Ann, you all right?"
Kate gasped and shook her head. Brad lifted her nearly off her feet, his eyes sharp with panic.
"I can't," she whispered, trying to work past the knots in her throat. "I can't leave now."
He looked at her in wonder. "Sure you can. What do you mean? Honey, are you sick?"
She shook her head again and thrust Sarah into his arms. "Take us home, Brad. You. . .burned the cookies." Her breathing slowly returned to normal. "Someone has to bake the cookies. Christmas can survive no snow." She raised her hands, palms up. "But no cookies? No way."
Brad whooped loudly and spun her around. "Come on home and make your naked ladies," he said. "I got Christmas covered."
Kate reddened as people paused to stare at them. She gave her husband a helpful shove toward the door. They were going home for Christmas.
Pamela Willis is the author of a Nancy Drew Mystery in the Simon and Schuster paperback series, and has published short stories and articles. She is presently collaborating with her twin sister on an adult suspense novel featuring identical twins.